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New Hampshire Senate Committee Approves Marijuana Legalization Bill With Amendments



New Hampshire’s Senate Judiciary Committee advanced a marijuana legalization bill on Wednesday, marking the first time in state history that a panel in the chamber has signed off on the reform.

Legalization advocates said the action represents the proposal clearing a major hurdle on its way to the desk of Gov. Chris Sununu (R).

“The odds of New Hampshire legalizing cannabis this year just dramatically increased,” Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, told Marijuana Moment in an email. “For the first time ever, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a legalization bill after first amending the bill in a way that addresses Gov. Sununu’s parameters.”

Before approving the House-passed measure, HB 1633, members of the Senate committee adopted a sweeping amendment from Sen. Daryl Abbas (R), who chaired a failed state commission on legalization late last year. Among other revisions, Abbas’s amendment increases the proposed penalties for public consumption of marijuana to include the possibility of jail time and levies a franchise fee—effectively a tax—on medical marijuana purchases.

In its current version, the bill would allow 15 stores to open statewide under a novel state-run franchise system, under which the state’s Liquor Commission would oversee the look, feel and operations of the retail shops.

The bill next heads to the Senate floor, where further amendments could be made before it proceeds to a second Senate committee.

Though O’Keefe and other advocates said they’re pleased to see New Hampshire make progress toward legalization, they’re also concerned about some of the changes made by Abbas’s amendment, which, among other changes, would impose a “franchise fee”—essentially a tax—on medical marijuana sales and step up penalties for public consumption of marijuana to include the possibility of jail time.

“While this is a huge step forward, we hope to see floor amendments to restore important provisions, including exempting patients from sin taxes,” she said.

Along with Abbas’s revisions, the Judiciary Committee at Wednesday’s hearing also considered two competing amendments to the proposal—one from panel member Sen. Cindy Rosenwald (D) and another from Senate President Jeb Bradley (R)—but did not adopt either.

Rosenwald’s amendment differed from Abbas’s in that it would have offered more substantial legal and professional protections for lawful users of marijuana, given licensing priority to existing medical marijuana operators in the state, reduced allowable serving sizes of infused edibles to no more than 5 milligrams THC—as opposed to 10 mg per serving, as is common in nearby states—and exempted medical patients from taxes.

Bradley’s proposed changes, meanwhile, would have eliminated the possibility for vertical integration by cannabis businesses, removed provisions limiting asset forfeiture around marijuana activity, limited THC content in cannabis products to no more than 15 percent, mandated that products be tested for a list of contaminants already in place in Canada and required that workers in the industry complete mandatory mental health and reporting trainings.

Home cultivation would remain illegal under all three of the proposals.

Text of the amendments was not immediately available online. Members said they didn’t begin receiving copies of the proposals until about an hour before the hearing began.

“One of the things I was saying before we even started all this would be much better if we had one 40-page amendment, not three that all come out this day,” Abbas told colleagues. “We’re doing the best we can with the time we get, but I know which one I’m going to support.”

One of Abbas’s main goals with his measure, he said, is dissuading people from consuming cannabis in public. In past hearings, the senator has repeatedly lamented being able to smell marijuana in public spaces. Compared to the House-passed bill, his amendment steps up the penalty for the second and subsequent offenses to an unspecified misdemeanor, which could result in jail time.

“There’s really no excuse to be violating that law in the first place, never mind twice,” Abbas said, saying that the smell of marijuana in public is the “number one complaint that I hear over anything else.”

ACLU of New Hampshire and other civil rights advocates have opposed that change, warning that it will lead to disproportionately severe and lasting consequences and may end up costing the state more money because it will be required to provide defense lawyers for defendants who cannot afford one.

Abbas’s amendment also limits municipalities to no more than a single cannabis retail establishment unless it’s home to more than 50,000 people. Only two cities in the state, Manchester and Nashua, meet that threshold. Local voters would need to approve the industry in order for businesses to open in that jurisdiction.

The panel’s vote in favor of advancing the amended bill fell 3–2, with Abbas joined by two Democrats in support. The two other Republican members of the committee cast votes in opposition.

Abbas explained to colleagues that he’s not excited about the prospect of legalization, but he feels it makes more sense for New Hampshire to regulate marijuana as it becomes more widely available in New England.

“Is this a huge win for the state? I’m not saying that,” he said. “I just have concerns right now because we’re dealing with what we can’t control. We can’t control what they do in Maine. We can’t control what they do in Vermont. We can’t control what they do in Massachusetts.”

“A lot of the problems that can come from this, I think we got it—we’re already dealing with it,” Abbas added. “This was my best guess to mitigate some of those negative impacts.”

Speaking to the local publication InDepthNH this week, Tim Egan, a former state representative who’s now a lobbyist for the New Hampshire Cannabis Association, said he believes there are enough votes in the Senate, which has defeated numerous House-passed legalization bills in prior sessions, to finally send a proposal to the governor’s desk this year.

“I think this is the year,” Egan said.

Sununu, who’s remained a skeptic of legalization, said recently that he’ll only sign the bill if specific provisions are included. “Fundamentally I don’t really love this idea anyway,” he said, but he explained that he sees legalization as “inevitable.”

Lawmakers did not directly reference the governor or his required provisions when discussing proposed amendments Wednesday, but Abbas has said repeatedly in past hearings that he believes his changes would pass muster with Sununu.

The legalization proposal passed out of the House a month ago amid warnings from Abbas and some other senators that the bill would be dead on arrival in their chamber. Sununu similarly said he wouldn’t sign the bill in its House-passed form.

The bill’s House sponsor, Rep. Erica Layon (R), told Marijuana Moment in a brief comment ahead of Wednesday’s hearing that she’s “hopeful that the Senate will pass a version of this legislation which can pass the House.”

In March, when a House subcommittee was considering a bill, members rejected a sweeping amendment backed by Abbas that would have replaced Layon’s plan with a franchise model. Layon has warned senators not to take House lawmakers’ votes for granted if they make considerable changes to her bill.

Opponents of cannabis reform, meanwhile, put out a call to action on Wednesday encouraging residents to lobby lawmakers to vote down the proposal.

With only several months left in Sununu’s term, observers are also weighing how the governor’s potential replacements would greet legalization. At least one possible successor, former U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R)—one of a handful of gubernatorial candidates that’s entered the race—said recently that she opposes legalizing marijuana for adults.

“I don’t think legalizing marijuana is the right direction for our state,” said Ayotte, who represented New Hampshire in the Senate from 2011 to 2017 and was previously the state’s attorney general from 2004 to 2009.

As approved by the House last month, HB 1633 would allow 15 retail stores statewide and impose a 10 percent state charge on adult-use purchases. Medical marijuana would be exempt from the tax. Retailers would be regulated through the agency store model, with significant restrictions on marketing and advertising.

Lawmakers worked extensively on marijuana reform issues last session and attempted to reach a compromise to enact legalization through a multi-tiered system that would include state-controlled shops, dual licensing for existing medical cannabis dispensaries and businesses privately licensed to individuals by state agencies. The legislature ultimately hit an impasse on the complex legislation.

Bicameral lawmakers also convened the state commission tasked with studying legalization and proposing a path forward last year, though the group ultimately failed to arrive at a consensus or propose final legislation.

The Senate defeated a more conventional House-passed legalization bill last year, HB 639, despite its bipartisan support.

Last May, the House defeated marijuana legalization language that was included in a Medicaid expansion bill. The Senate also moved to table another piece of legislation that month that would have allowed patients and designated caregivers to cultivate up to three mature plants, three immature plants and 12 seedlings for personal therapeutic use.

After the Senate rejected the reform bills in 2022, the House included legalization language as an amendment to separate criminal justice-related legislation—but that was also struck down in the opposite chamber.

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Ben Adlin, a senior editor at Marijuana Moment, has been covering cannabis and other drug policy issues professionally since 2011. He was previously a senior news editor at Leafly, an associate editor at the Los Angeles Daily Journal and a Coro Fellow in Public Affairs. He lives in Washington State.


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